Lessons from Lebanon: A Meditation on Collapse

While the news has mainly revolved around COVID, Afghanistan, stimulus packages, and Captain Kirk’s latest space flight (or whatever absurd celebrity event is now trending when you read this), a quiet crisis has steadily persisted in the country of Lebanon. The economy has been in crisis since 2019 but really exploded with the massive explosion of the country’s Port of Beirut last August. Now hyperinflation has made it difficult to obtain basic goods and services for the majority of the public, from gasoline and medicine to meat and bread.

One op-ed in the New York Times by a Lebanese writer describes the challenges of simply living day to day, from getting enough electricity to write to going to the bakery (which, being near a gas station where some people are literally killing others for gas, is a high-risk endeavor).

This is terrible and I find it difficult to imagine, and feel nothing but sadness for those who are already living through collapse (whether political, economic, or ecological in nature). But I have to admit I find myself imagining living through collapse quite often anyway. What would Middletown look like, what would my life be like, in a state of collapse? It’s kind of like imagining being forced to participate in the documentary No Impact Man, but without any ability to say, “Ok, that’s enough.”1

Collapse Man

I imagine the initial stages of Collapse Man would be all about cutting costs where money has become nearly worthless or suddenly difficult to come by. Perhaps my mom would come live in our apartment, taking my son’s bedroom. No one would be pleased by that! But it would cut our combined rent by a third. That would also allow us to get rid of that now second car of our combined household, saving a bit more. I would resist getting rid of the remaining car at first, as being able to use it for errands—or to flee—would be valuable.2 But already, during the much smaller COVID crisis, in Connecticut, adolescents are stealing more cars and people are stealing more catalytic converters. A little old hybrid in the driveway—with its catalytic converter, its batteries, its tires, and its increasingly rare spare parts—might quickly end up being a picked over hunk of scrap.

My car after collapse? (Photo from gladlaughingboy via Pixabay)

So, with no car and intermittent—or no—heating and electricity, costs would be manageable (assuming I could make a deal with our landlord to stay even if money holds little value).3 The one hope would be that the water still runs, or I’d be biking daily to the Connecticut River to draw tomorrow’s water (filtering and then putting it in clear bottles under the sun, or boiling it, to kill pathogens).4

A boy in Bolivia manages his SODIS filtration system—an ingenious almost zero cost and zero impact water purification system. (Photo from the SODIS Manual)

Of course, in this scenario, what the car represented—freedom to explore, get into nature, and especially to bring my son to educational opportunities—would now be less important or completely irrelevant.

Instead I’d be trying to figure out where our food would come from. I don’t pretend that my garden or even converted lawns would be enough (even if I could prevent theft).5 Or even the food from the farm I volunteer at—assuming I biked the 45 minutes each way (risking life and limb on dangerous roads) to work and the farmers could expand production with additional labor. Hopefully it’d help, but I, like most others, would be waiting in lines for bread, or flour, or whatever else I could get.6

The hardest part is imagining the violence and how to deal with that. Would people shoot each other over gas? Would angry youth roam? Would a neighborhood gang form offering informal security for a weekly payment (and what could we pay)? In a land of 393 million guns (40 percent of the world’s total!), it might be perilous to walk home with groceries gleaned from half-empty stores.

No Impact Man

Recently, I edited a report on 1.5 degree lifestyles (just released!)—essentially exploring what our lifestyles would look like if we actually tried to stop climate change. By 2030, the world should converge around a 2.5 ton CO2e individual lifestyle footprint (so not including industrial or government emissions).7 With the average Canadian at 14.2 tons per year (the US wasn’t included because it was even higher—an outlier you could call it), 99 percent of the population would have to cut travel and home sizes by about half, and go vegan to hit that target (and then keep going down to 0.7 tons CO2e/person by 2050).8

Funnily, the differences in lifestyles between living in collapse and intentionally preventing collapse aren’t all that great—in both cases, gone are the cars, the larger homes, the rich diet, the extreme levels of comfort. But there is one key difference that is deeply undervalued: security and a feeling of control. In the No Impact scenario, there are no gangs roaming, no threat to life and limb (other than climate disasters, which we can only make less probable in the No Impact scenario but cannot stop them in either case). No shortages of basic foodstuffs, though electricity and heat, being so expensive (or even rationed), may be in short supply, forcing people to get used to colder homes in the winter and hotter ones in the summer. But there’d be a positive side too, public transportation might grow in scope so being car-free wouldn’t mean you’d be trapped in your neighborhood. Public services—from water and sewage treatment to libraries and the humble street light (often taken for granted but even that does not work in Beirut)—would still be available. Medicines would be accessible as would bread and at least seasonal produce.

Obviously I prefer the second scenario, but in reality, like everyone else, I prefer neither. It’s nice to have a bit more room, a warm home, and a car, and to not spend my days hunting for necessities. But there’s the rub: by not choosing the latter, we all but guarantee the former.9

Sitting with Collapse

What’s the lesson here? Sure, it’s to imagine living simpler and then follow through. And to encourage others in your network to do the same. And to push governments to enact the bold policy changes we’ll need to get to a sustainable future (because no individual lifestyle changes you make will be enough without bolder, broader policy interventions).

But it’s also to start meditating on collapse, coming to terms with it, and preparing for it—mentally, physically, spiritually, and especially by building a community that might help insulate you in the immediate aftermath, and can then help in building a new post-collapse reality, as remember: collapse is not a permanent state. Eventually over time, a new normal will emerge (though in some cases after a prolonged period of violence and horror—and the new normal won’t necessarily be the one you were rooting for).

So I invite you to sit with collapse. The next time you meditate—or if you don’t meditate perhaps when you’re walking or driving somewhere—methodically imagine your life in a state of collapse. What brings you the most fear (pay attention to your breath)? What challenges do you foresee? Is there anything that brings you joy?

Try sitting with collapse. What’s it feel like to you? (Photo from ractapopulous via Pixabay)

Then ask yourself: what do I wish I had done to prepare (other than stockpiling toilet paper)? How would I get by day-to-day? What groups do I wish I were better engaged with? What skills do I wish I had cultivated? What can I do to enact more of that joy now? And most importantly, realizing that collapse isn’t here yet, are there steps I can be doing now to achieve all of these?

Of course, it’s easy to imagine collapse, much harder to truly live through it, but as my karate teacher says often, practice like it’s a real fight, and you’ll fight like it’s practice (rather than freezing up in fear). There may be some truth to that in this case too.

Endnotes

1) An important note: I am not romanticizing collapse, not wishing to simplify my life by hitting the “Big Reset” button. It will be miserable. But so will dying, most likely. Visualizing that process (such as through the corpse meditation) helps one come to terms with it, and to be better prepared mentally when the time comes.

2) Even if there was nowhere to go, the psychological value of knowing you could go is valuable. In theory I could drive to the Canadian border with one tank of gas. I do not think I’d be able to make it by bike very easily. And of course, if it’s this bad, the Canadian border will be well-guarded and visitors aggressively turned away.

3) Energy for cooking would be a big issue. But fortunately a friend just showed me the wonders of the rocket stove, a development oft discussed in developing country settings for reducing fuel wood needs and indoor air pollution. With a handful of sticks—which will remain available in all but apocalyptic scenarios—a rocket stove (made out of three different sized soup cans) can easily boil a pot of water or cook a meal (which perhaps can be coupled with a simple solar cooker for cooking on sunny days).

The Four Simple Steps of the SODIS Method. (From the SODIS Manual)

4) Learn more about this miraculous nearly free way to sterilize water here.

5) Though over time, with everyone rowing (or should I say sowing) together, I do still believe that yards could provide a significant percentage of food for suburban and spread out urban communities.

6) Though it does reinforce the value of having relationships in place before the collapse: hopefully because I know this farmer, my family will not starve.

7) Rereading this sentence, I realize it’s swimming in jargon. 2.5 ton CO2e means that every year you would have to keep the greenhouse gas emissions you produce (just through your daily life—not through what you do for work, or what the government produces on your behalf) to 2,500 kilograms. Sound easy? Well, most likely you’re producing between 10 and 20 tons each year. And even the most ascetic environmentalist is still most likely way over that limit (the average Indian produces that much in emissions and Indians live in relatively tiny homes, use few fuels, have few cars, no pets, and eat mostly vegetarian diets).

8) This is extrapolating a bit. The data actually found that if 99 percent of Canadians went vegan, cut travel by a third, and home sizes by nearly half they still couldn’t get to the 2.5 ton target! I don’t even want to imagine what that means for Americans….

9) Especially as governments and industries aren’t changing either. In recent news, Australia is going to buy at least eight nuclear submarines from the US—what a waste of billions of dollars, and of course that means China will now need to spend even more on their navy—meaning about a trillion dollars that could go to forest restoration and greening our unsustainable infrastructure (or even better: marketing low-consumption lifestyles to help shift cultural norms away from consumerism) will instead be squandered on additional ways to blow up the planet.

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3 Responses

  1. Tom Read

    Thanks for this thoughtful essay, Erik!

    It seems to me that you have the perspective of someone who lives in a place with weak community ties. Given a real collapse, such places will probably become death traps, in my opinion. Not trying to be morbid, just realistic.

    For example, when you ponder physical security without police, you think of local thugs extorting you. That may be quite realistic for Middletown, but in contrast, various collapse experiences around the world have shown that tight-knit communities provide security through neighbours looking out for each other, banding together for mutual defense and internal security. That takes trusting relationships and organization. Would you entrust your life to your Middletown neighbours today?

    This situation reminds me of rural communities served by volunteer fire departments, which have a para-military organizational structure and uniformed appearance. But these fire departments are comprised of ordinary citizens — friends and neighbours motivated by community service, not paid employment. In a collapse scenario, my trust-worthy, well-organized friends and neighbours in our island’s* two volunteer fire departments could easily provide the nucleus of an effective island security force.

    As for food: anyone in suburbia with good gardening skills and ample seeds, tools, water, soil and sun exposure should be able to grow a significant amount of beans, greens, squash, roots and at least some fruits, nuts, herbs and grains. You don’t need meat if you have these basics, although catching the right sort of fish would great for vitamin D in winter. A year-round food supply would need an organized, tight community, so that food surpluses and imports could be shared among community members. That’s food sovereignty – where a community controls its own food supply. This concept also assumes an equitable food distribution system, not “rationing by dollars.” Money – federal dollars – would probably be irrelevant anyway, as you mention in your essay.

    You’re more likely to hear these days about food security, but that’s just where someone, probably what’s left of government, provides you with enough food to stay alive – at least by their definition. “Security” in this case is a misnomer, since you won’t be secure if you have no control over your food supply.

    I wouldn’t assume just because you “know the local farmer” that you’ll receive food in a severe food shortage. Why? Because local farmers will get cleaned out quickly, just like local grocery stores. Most food is produced and processed on an annual cycle, so a sudden loss of food supply will be catastrophic if the community hasn’t prepared for this possibility. No individual, including farmers, can make it alone under collapse conditions.

    By the way, based on what’s happening right this minute with skyrocketing wholesale food prices across North America, I believe that grocery stores will very soon be greatly increasing retail prices. Brace yourself for hoarding and incompetent (too little, too late, too corrupt) government attempts at rationing.

    Bottom line: when thinking about collapse, think community, and don’t be afraid to stockpile food (and maybe toilet paper if you have no rags) before the rush if you can afford it.

    Take care,

    –Tom

    *Texada Island, BC, Canada

  2. Jan Steinman

    Pick a special time to think about collapse? I think about it all the time!

    I’m in a situation where I put every cent I had into a co-op “lifeboat community,” that I am now forced to leave, in order to get proper cancer treatment for my wife.

    As I walk down the streets of Bellingham, WA, I feel like the kid in The Sixth Sense… “I see dead people!”

    Things are definitely building up to a head.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Sorry to hear that you had to leave your lifeboat community, Jan. I hope you are at least physically close enough to still receive the social support and friendship that that community surely provided and that they’ll continue to honor your investment/commitment even if you are physically separated. And while a virtual disembodied community can’t compete, I do invite you to join our online conversations–it may offer some camaraderie as well (at least others who understand the urgency of now).

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